Statistics have been used in recent media reports to support a flawed narrative that a large proportion of people seeking asylum lie about their age. In reality, less than 1.5% of people who claimed asylum in the past five years have been accused of lying about their age, and there is no definitive, medical test to prove that the accused have lied. It’s impossible to tell someone’s age just by looking at them. This is why young people are asked to show ID when buying restricted goods.
What happens when an Immigration Officer suspects an asylum seeker is lying about their age?
If the person says they are a child, and the Immigration Officer believes the person to be over 25, they simply treat them as an adult. There are no safeguarding procedures in place, no independent opinion is sought, and nobody asks experts who work with children to do a proper assessment in line with best practice guidance. This isn’t fair and means vulnerable children can end up not receiving the care they need.
The government is not required to count how many people are treated this way. At the Refugee Council our Age Dispute Project is contacted by applicants themselves, immigration solicitors or voluntary agencies if they are worried a child is being treated as adult. Since April 2020 we have helped 100 people affected by this policy, and only two have been found to be adult after a professional assessment. (Some of the others are still being assessed).
If the Immigration Officer has doubts about the age a person claims to be, they will refer to a local authority to make a decision on the age dispute.
How many people in the asylum system have their age disputed?
In 2019, local authorities received 798 age dispute referrals. The Home Office states that 494 of these were ultimately deemed to be children, and 304 adults. In the same time period, 2,977 child applicants did not have their age disputed.
In the past five years, 2,135 of the 155,268 people who claimed asylum in the UK were accused of lying about their age. In other words: more than 98% of asylum seekers were not accused of lying, and of the 1.4% who were, there is no definitive evidence to suggest that the Home Office’s allegations are true.
Who can assess age and how do they do it?
There is no definitive, medical test. It is a judgment, based on knowledge of child development and analysis of a range of factors. Many of the young people we see have been exposed to violence and have faced danger and exploitation, which makes it even harder to determine their age, as they can appear to be much older than they are.
Assessments take time. Where possible, they take into account a range of views, e.g. other professionals who have got to know the young person. Eventually, a date of birth will be assigned to a young person and this is communicated to the Home Office. That initial decision by a social worker is used in the published statistics.
Can the person seeking asylum appeal the decision?
There is no appeal within the local authority process, the only way to challenge it is through a court process. A judge will look at all the evidence and decide if the right decision is made. The decisions are frequently overturned, and the results of these are not counted in any published statistics.
Judith Dennis is Policy Manager at the Refugee Council